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Urgent action needed to clear non Covid-19 referral backlog and avert secondary crisis

11 June 2020

The Government must commit adequate resource and support to clearing the backlog of referrals and delayed follow-ups in secondary care if we are to avoid a potential patient safety crisis and a tsunami of future claims or investigations, Medical Protection said today.

The call follows the Irish Medical Organisation’s (IMO) warning to the Special Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19, that sustained investment will be required to deal with the post Covid-19 challenge following the cancellation of all non-urgent care.  The IMO said 570,000 people are still waiting for an outpatient appointment and a further 230,000 are on a waiting list for an inpatient or day-case procedure. Cancer screening programmes have been put on hold, and GP access to diagnostics and referral pathways have effectively been closed down.

Separately, a survey of Medical Protection members (conducted by Research By Design) revealed that nearly 2 in 5 doctors (38%) are concerned that they will face a regulatory or criminal investigation if patients come to harm as a result of delayed referrals or non-Covid-19 services being unavailable or limited.

Medical Protection - the world’s leading protection organisation for healthcare professionals, supporting over 21,000 in Ireland - said patients, doctors and the HSE may suffer without action.

Dr Rob Hendry, Medical Director, said: “The need to reduce the number of patients attending healthcare facilities and the suspension of routine investigations and outpatient appointments has resulted in a large backlog of referrals across many specialities and in many centres.

“It will take some time for all services to be up and running normally. Covid-19 will continue to bring pressures and complications, compounded by the upcoming winter, and this is on top of the referral back log.

“Buried within these many delayed referrals will be patients with serious conditions, not yet identified. For some, if diagnoses are missed or significantly delayed this could seriously impact those patients’ prognoses and outcomes. It’s not difficult to see how we could be facing another different kind of patient safety crisis.  

“The prospect of an adverse outcome under these circumstances would be devastating for any patient, and the psychological impact on the already emotionally and physically exhausted doctors involved would be significant. Such situations may also give rise to a tsunami of medicolegal disputes, claims and investigations – indeed nearly two in five of our members tell us they’re concerned about this.

“There is a strong argument for the introduction of emergency laws to protect doctors from investigations arising from impossible situations like this. But our hope is that through Government led planning, support, resource and sharing of best practice and learnings, the referral backlog will be dealt with expeditiously and any looming crisis averted.”


Notes to editors

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About Medical Protection

Medical Protection is a trading name of The Medical Protection Society Limited (“MPS”). MPS is the world’s leading protection organisation for doctors, dentists and healthcare professionals. We protect and support the professional interests of more than 300,000 members around the world. Membership provides access to expert advice and support and can also provide, depending on the type of membership required, the right to request indemnity for any complaints or claims arising from professional practice.

Our in-house experts assist with the wide range of legal and ethical problems that arise from professional practice. This can include clinical negligence claims, complaints, medical and dental council inquiries, legal and ethical dilemmas, disciplinary procedures, inquests and fatal accident inquiries.

Our philosophy is to support safe practice in medicine and dentistry by helping to avert problems in the first place. We do this by promoting risk management through our workshops, E-learning, clinical risk assessments, publications, conferences, lectures and presentations.

MPS is not an insurance company. All the benefits of membership of MPS are discretionary as set out in the Memorandum and Articles of Association.